Forty-eight years ago today – Martin Luther King Jr. gave his “I Have a Dream” speech from the steps of the Lincoln Memorial. In commemoration, the Martin Luther King Jr. National Memorial dedication was scheduled for today, August 28, 2011. However, Mother Nature had other plans.
I first saw King’s likeness this spring, bathing in buttery morning sunlight along the Tidal Basin. The sculpture took my breath away – shinning through a thicket of scaffolding and cherry blossoms. I eagerly anticipated the monument’s completion and unveiling.
After two decades of planning, fundraising, and construction, the Martin Luther King Jr. National Memorial opened to visitors this past Monday August 22, 2011. The memorial is located at 1964 Independence Ave, SW – the “1964” chosen in honor of the 1964 Civil Rights Act.
Martin Luther King, Jr. was a clergyman, advocate for social justice and martyr to peace, equality, and justice. He was a prominent leader of the African American Civil Rights Movement, and also fought against poverty and the Vietnam War. He was assassinated on April 4, 1968 in Memphis, TN.
King is the first African-American and fourth non-President to be honored with a memorial in the National Mall area. The prominent location was selected for it’s direct “line of leadership” between the Jefferson and Lincoln memorials.
The central theme of King’s memorial is derived from a line of his “I Have A Dream” speech: “Out of a mountain of despair, a stone of hope.” Visitors pass between two imposing granite mountains, representing the “Mountain of Despair,” to reach the centerpiece sculpture of King, carved from the “Stone of Hope.”
Like all important works of art, this one has had it’s fair share of controversy. The memorial was designed by ROMA Design Group of San Francisco and the “Stone of Hope” was sculpted by Lei Yixin of China. This choice was controversial for multiple reasons. Some believe an African American sculptor should have been chosen. Others objected on human rights grounds, since Lei had sculpted Mao Zedong. However, the president of the memorial foundation, Harry E. Johnson, defended the decision, stating that the final selection was made by a mostly African American design team and was based solely on artistic skill.
Unfortunately, the weekend’s official ceremonies, including performances by Aretha Franklin and Stevie Wonder, were postponed indefinitely, due to threats of Hurricane Irene. The area also suffered damage from a historic earthquake on Tuesday.
I visited the memorial on Friday evening, hoping to sneak in a few photos before the hurricane. Much to my surprise, the weather was gorgeous and the memorial was bustling. People of all ages and ethnicities had traveled from across the country to stand here in front of King.
“One of the greatest things any black man can ever see. It’s getting dark, but I don’t wanna leave,” described one man on his cell phone.
“A historic day…” an older man said under his breath.
“Is he alive, Mama?” a young boy asked his mother.
“No baby, he passed away,” she explained calmly, “Well actually, he was murdered.”
During a time when everything seems in flux – from our economy to our weather, King’s Memorial stands tall as a reminder that adversity is apart of life – and something we can and will overcome. This space embodies hope and strength.
It is also a testament to the positive impact any one person can have upon the world. Martin Luther King, Jr. was never President, yet here he stands proudly amongst them. His leadership inspires me to continue fighting for what I believe in.
Ironically, Hurricane Irene passed through the District last night, clearing way for sunny blue skies today. Although the official ceremonies were postponed, there’s no doubt the world will celebrate King’s memory and message today. Even after the darkest of day – there is light.